Nova Cascade - The Navigator

Nova Cascade – The Navigator

I had not heard of Nova Cascade until two years ago, when while listening in the chat room of Progzilla Radio’s The Prog Mill (curated by the beloved prog master Shaun Geraghty) I heard the title track from their Back From the Brink album. It was sensational. It had layers, complexity, this sensual violin at the beginning and such a beguiling melody. It was also vivid, compelling, serene, and epic – it was just splendid. At that time, I was also thrilled to be introduced to the band’s keyboardist and founder Dave Hilborne, who happened to be in the chatroom with us.

Nova Cascade is an international progressive rock group, formed in the spring of 2017, and based in the UK. The Navigator is the fourth album in their discography, the previous three being Above All Else (2018), A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (2019), and Back From the Brink (2021). I could not find out how they came up with the band’s name, but from what I read, the definitions of each element are: 1. A nova is a star showing a sudden large increase in brightness and then slowly returning to its original state over a few months, and, 2. A cascade is a small waterfall that is one of several stages that fall down a slope. So, I like the idea of a brightly burning cascading star! Nova Cascade’s music shines brightly. I am hoping that this review will provide more awareness of this extremely talented band to a larger audience.

The group members are Dave Hilborne (vocals, synthesizers, programming), Dave Fick (bass), Charlie Bramald (flute), Eric Bouillette (violin, acoustic & electric guitars), Lorenzo Poliandri (drums & percussion), Colin Powell (guitars), and Nino Chikviladze (violin). Eric Bouillette, a master musician and absolute legend in the world of progressive rock, tragically passed away in August 2022 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He left such an indelible, lasting, and impactful legacy on all the lives he touched, musically and personally. The Navigator is a moving and loving tribute to Eric, and on the back of the CD case there is a small sticker that states that all proceeds will help support the fight against pancreatic cancer. What a wonderful and humanitarian idea.

The Navigator‘s thirteen tracks clock in at just under 54 minutes. I held onto it longer than I probably should have, listening to it over 40 times in order to complete the review. I listened to the download whilst commuting to work in the wee hours before dawn, around my campus at work and on the ride home. I listened to it shopping for groceries and I listened to it on long walks around my neighbourhood. I found it healing and nourishing with each play, a banquet for my ears and a balm for my soul. Then, on 15th September, the CD arrived with a charming personal note from Mr. Hilborne, as well as the magnificent artwork, both on the liner sleeve, inserts and the CD itself. The heartfelt tributes to Eric Bouillette by fellow artists and others who were close to him are warm and touching. I have played the CD non-stop since its arrival. The reason I say all of this is that with each listen, I am discovering new avenues of sound and dimension. I still am! It is an album that requires concentrated and focused listening. Additionally, I find it is best played in its totality, and if possible, in solitude and on headphones. The return for all this is a deeply personal, almost rapturous experience. The music is extraordinary and, in my humble opinion, defies comparison to other artists, alive or deceased.

The sumptuous choral opening of Sleeping Dogs begins the album with an almost prayer-like chant as the guitar and bass provide the core and melody for the song to move along. Then the listener is met with a soul crushingly melancholic violin lead by Eric Bouillette. Combined with Dave Hilborne’s affecting and poignant gossamer vocals, accentuated by a soaring choral descant, I was quite moved emotionally.

“Can’t cauterize the wound
Far beyond repair
Let sleeping dogs lie
Don’t occupy my heart
Tread softly on my dreams
Spare my heart
In tatters and in rags.”

The bass and synthesiser gently bring the track to a conclusion and set the stage for what is to come.

Safe Haven opens with gentle orchestral and choral flourishes, Fick’s pulsating bassline laying down the rhythm and medley. We hear exquisite violin and Charlie Bramald’s flute as they open the track to a more rock-like beat. There is a sense of movement and progress, expressive guitars providing the rails on which the track evolves. I really like the melody and chord changes as well as the pace of the song. I found Walking Along the Canal awe-inspiring. It conjures up a pastoral timelessness and the tranquillity of a long-ago era. Gorgeous piano snippets with a heavenly violin palette colour the track; this is a sensuous, eloquent, and moving piece of music. About two minutes in, Powell’s gorgeous guitar lead in conjunction with Hilborne’s keyboards provides a sense of being near moving water, and the vocal descant is superb. The hauntingly beautiful tone of Chikviladze’s violin provides a sense of comfort and warmth. What ethereal beauty this track evokes to me.

The title song, The Navigator, is a gem. It is the anchor and the album’s foundational track – ten-plus minutes of atmospheric ecstasy. The star of this track is the sensational drumming that provides the tapestry for the song to grow and flourish. Judicious use of vocal descants, slow and meaningful instrumental highlights, such as the flute, piano and synths, and methodical chord changes add mystery and wonderment. About two minutes in, Bouilette’s guitar winds up providing such sheer power and verve. The sound created here is mesmerizing. With an abrupt melodic shift, there is a sense of grinding and forging ahead. This track is sublime, Bouilette’s gentle guitar and Fick’s bass creating such an organic sound. An acoustic guitar tracks and slows down the pace, while Bramald’s utterly magical flute allows the listener to catch their breath. There is that sense of longing as the pulse and pace quicken. Another subtle chord change and a deeper bassline bring the track to a conclusion. This is a literary, worldly, and cinematic piece. It’s so exhilarating and another example of how talented musicians can execute a vision and hit it on all cylinders, creating music that is majestic and enduring.

A few of the pieces function as transitional connective sinews that bind the others together, providing the listener with shorter interludes of glorious music that always forge ahead with the voyage. They allow the audience to take in what has been played, to compress and allow the stunning aural beauty and textures to be processed and understood. Other tracks highlight the superb professionalism and musical talent of the band. For example, The Night Crossing is a gentle track that highlights both timing and the brilliant combination of Bramald and Powell, with their playful interlude of flute and guitar. It’s a light track that allows Hilborne to stretch out and flex his skills as an arranger and composer. It reminded me of the dazzling and colourful cover of the album as the balloon crosses over water to the safety of land. Such imagery and feel. The Fever Dream is pure bliss, Hilborne incorporating choral, guitar, flute, and bass elements with synthesisers, piano, and added effects, gently, seamlessly, and masterfully allowing each to shine. There is an Eastern motif and vibe that fits so well, the sound of seagulls surrounding the music toward the end, providing such peace, harmony, and closure along with Powell’s tender acoustic guitar. There is overwhelming emotion and presence. Any Minute Now begins with a spoken poem, performed lovingly by voice artist Olivia Steele:

“Any minute now, I said
Just another moment to wait
Where did all the years pass?
We’re taken before our time
The ties that bind unwind
Move on.

With a slightly bosa nova groove, which I found quite appealing, and with synthesiser and choral support, Hilborne sings the same verse with such utter emotional anguish and despair. There is an abrupt melody change as his voice slows down the pace and meshes with the choral descant as if he were in the chorus singing the last stanza solo. The music then diminishes with a sense of gut-wrenching loss. Being a huge fan of the author Thomas Wolfe and his massive coming-of-age works, this song could easily be a soundtrack for them. That is saying something special about this unreservedly breathtaking music.

A wall of ethereal synthesisers envelopes the listener as The Noble Lion opens with a lovely a chant-like chorus and piano. An infectious syncopating drum creates a quick pulsing rhythm, the dreamy choral descant glides painting a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. Hilborne’s piano and the cadence created by Poliandri’s drums march in perfect harmony.

Our odyssey continues with Submerged, but here we must take the underwater route. This is The Navigator‘s Eric Bouillette moment for me, a paced feeling of motion and progress before Bouillette’s guitar is unleashed with blistering effect. The band have created a wonderful video to highlight this tune with a small submersible gliding along. It’s as if Bouillette’s muscular guitar is nuclear propulsion for the sub! A fast and furious “nova” cascade of a track.

Weightless is another angelic jewel. An enchanting drum rhythm and synthesisers collide with Powell’s guitar to create the canopy for Hilborne’s raw, grieving vocals:

“Frozen in place
The seconds felt like hours
Two souls entwined
Like bees’ swarm to flowers
With grace and faith and poise
You accepted your mortality
We’re all weightless with human love
Yes, we’re all weightless with human love.”

Hilborne’s singing on this track is so moving and engaging; I would call it heroic. The love he felt for his brother-in-arms and colleague Eric Bouilette is so movingly palpable here it brought me to tears. And the use of the choral descant in conjunction with the vocals are hypnotic and so poignant. I could visualise the tears trickling down Hilborne’s cheeks as he courageously sings about his late friend. I was so moved by this song. Powell’s guitar work is utter genius with its softness and sensitive touch. Return to Haven is orchestral and expressive, a reprise that signals an end to the journey. It is the crowning touch of an epic passage, and it’s the signature of Nino Chikviladze’s soul-wrenching and melancholy violin that drives this song.

Somewhere Between Here & Now and Au Revoir bring us to the end of this epic journey. We are to take stock of the music that has unfolded before us and we need to capture those moments as we look back on this cinematic and literary album, a magnificent emotional whirlwind of a journey.

The sublime thing about this album is that there are layers and sounds to be discovered with each new listen, music that touches the heart and soul with such vivid emotion, imagery, and longing. The Navigator is a musical landmark of a lifetime, a tour de force, a touchstone of brilliant musicality and soundscape, and a masterpiece of progressive ambient art. It has been such a privilege to be able to communicate how this extraordinary album has affected me.

01. Sleeping Dogs (3:29)
02. Safe Haven (5:58)
03. A Walk Along the Canal (3:44)
04. The Navigator (10:22)
05. The Night Crossing (2:23)
06. The Fever Dream (5:44)
07. Any Minute Now (3:10)
08. The Noble Lion (3:41)
09. Submerged (2:34)
10. Weightless (3:02)
11. Return to Haven (4:54)
12. Somewhere Between Here & Now (2:36)
13. Au Revoir (1:56)

Total Time – 53:33

Dave Hilborne – Vocals, Synthesisers, Programming
Dave Fick – Bass
Charlie Bramald – Flute
Eric Bouillette – Violin, Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Lorenzo Poliandri – Drums & Percussion
Colin Powell – Guitars
Olivia Steele – Spoken Word (track 7)

Record Label: Invictus Music Ltd.
Formats: Digital, CD
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 29th September 2023

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